The Gay Epi-Genes?

This is cross-posted from Queereka. I initially did not cross-post it to Skepchick because I didn’t see it making the rounds in the skeptical/atheist blogosphere. But now that I see it popping up (in quite unskeptical ways, I might add), I figured I’d cross-post this to give a different take than I’ve seen elsewhere.

I came across this awesomely bad article late last night. It is either an example of really bad science reporting, really bad science, or both.

Actual Headline: Scientists May Have Finally Unlocked Puzzle of Why People Are Gay.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the ever-elusive “gay gene” and the plethora of studies that have attempted to find it (and failed). Well, apparently we’ve moved on from that folks: now it’s all about the EPI-MARKS!

So what the hell is up with this story? Well, for starters it’s not actually science.

The team of researchers used mathematical modeling to suggest that teh gay is passed through epigenetic markers, not through genetics. How does this work?

Evolutionarily speaking, if homosexuality was solely a genetic trait, scientists would expect the trait to eventually disappear because homosexuals wouldn’t be expected to reproduce. But because these epi-marks provide an evolutionary advantage for the parents of homosexuals: They protect fathers of homosexuals from underexposure to testosterone and mothers of homosexuals from overexposure to testosterone while they are in gestation.

So what’s the conclusion these scientists draw? Welllll……

“These epi-marks protect fathers and mothers from excess or underexposure to testosterone — when they carry over to opposite-sex offspring, it can cause the masculinization of females or the feminization of males,” Rice says, which can lead to a child becoming gay. Rice notes that these markers are “highly variable” and that only strong epi-marks will result in a homosexual offspring.

So there you have it folks. These epi-marks create us sissy boys and butch girls, which clearly causes teh gay. Nevermind all the masculine gay men, feminine lesbians, trans* gays and lesbians, androgynous queers, bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals, and so on. They’re clearly just abberations that don’t fit into the neat homo/hetero binary based on heteronormative stereotypes and are therefore unimportant. Case closed!

Except, it’s not. Why?

Rice’s model still needs to be tested on real-life parent-offspring pairs, but he says this epigenetic link makes more sense than any other explanation, and that his team has mapped out a way for other scientists to test their work.

“We’ve found a story that looks really good,” he says. “There’s more verification needed, but we point out how we can easily do epigenetic profiles genome-wide. We predict where the epi-marks occur, we just need other studies to look at it empirically. This can be tested and proven within six months. It’s easy to test. If it’s a bad idea, we can throw it away in short order.”

So the whole “may have unlocked the puzzle of why people are gay” headline really should read “Hypothesis about epigenetic causes of homosexuality needs to be tested” or “Scientists seeking empirical evidence for basis of heterosexist understandings of homosexuality.” Or just “more biological reductionist crap from the media” would suffice as well. I mean, really, this whole thing about nellies and tomboys is right out of the sexology playbook circa late 1800s. Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing would be so proud!

The thing is, I don’t doubt there are some biological components to sexual orientation. But to completely ignore the wide varieties of how same-sex behavior is expressed and experienced cross-culturally is asinine. Simplistic explanations like this never pan out because sexuality is complicated and fluid and not so easily defined.

You can find a copy of the study here.


Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at

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  1. If biology alone, whether it be genetics or epigenetics, were the sole determinant of our sexuality, I’m at a loss to explain people for whom certain objects (such as articles of clothing and the like) become the source of their sexual arousal.

    I understand people’s need for nice simple answers to questions, but I doubt human sexuality will ever be able to be reduced to a couple of simple determinants, biological or otherwise.

  2. I recall as an undergraduate in the early seventies doing lab experiments with regenerating rat livers and histones as a training exercise to demonstrate biological control mechanisms.

    So they call them Epi-marks now? New jargon, same old. But it is real.

    But, if this mechanism perchance explains a small percentage of “gayness” what then? Does that assist the cause against discrimination or does it assist those who want to treat homosexuality as a disease?

    On a side note there were some laughs to be had in the links and comments – “Violet criminals” and the “FucM gene”!

    1. I’m not trying to be dismissive of epigenetics at all. I agree that it’s real and that it can tell us some really interesting stuff.

      But this study was based on mathematical modeling, not empirical evidence. And it’s based on heterosexist assumptions of what it means to be “homosexual.” These are cultural biases seeping into science. There are plenty of “homosexuals” who do not fit into this sissy boy/butch girl binary.

      Sexuality and gender studies has moved well past that, so I’m quite baffled by how people could be drawing on it in 2012, except that they’re probably completely unaware of it.

      If this mechanism somehow explains a small percentage of “gayness,” I think it’s still pointless. If it only explains some gayness, how do we know it’s actually measuring that and not something else entirely? I also think it’s really problematic to link sexual orientation solely to hormones. This gets really deterministic really quickly. For example, how does this sissy-boy theory pan out when there is some evidence that gay men have higher levels of testosterone circulating than straight men?

      Whether or not homosexuality is biological or social or both, there will always be arguments against it from the religious right. If it’s biological, they will make arguments that it needs to be cured and prevented and will lead to eugenics. If it’s social, they will make arguments that it’s a choice and therefore undeserving of protection (though it never dawns on them that the same argument can be made against religion). If it’s biocultural, well they’ll just argue both as they are already.

      1. Thanks for that excellent response, Will. For what it’s worth, I agree strongly with what you say.

        I would be really uncomfortable to participate in research like that, unless say for the sake of argument, it was commissioned by the gay community themselves for some reason.

  3. Humans are carbon based bipedal neural network information processors that are the products of natural selection. And the function of those neural networks are determined by the interaction of genes and environment gearing the organism to survive.

    This statement would be understandably met with hostility from those who are religious. Oddly enough, such reductionist statements are also met with revulsion from some atheists (eg. Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin).

    At rock bottom we are nothing but the complex arrangement of molecules that via natural seletion led to the development of complex neuronal assemblies that communicate via synaptic connections. The greatest gift that evolution gave us is not our minds but instead the action potentials that ultimately underlies our minds. And I find absolutely nothing horrific about this truth. I see only beauty that transcends our limited and often prejudiced view of each other. That is, if we all saw each other this way then each of us is beautiful.

    The only problem with this article is some of the sterotypical and misguided language ie. “sexual preference”, “masculinization”, “feminization”. Yet I did not find the spirit of the article to be in any way homophobic, heterosexist or bigoted.

    I champion such scientists who seek reductionist theories of who we are rather than hand-waving “woo-woo” explanations.

    1. Wow. I barely even know how to respond to this claptrap.

      Are you saying that culture means absolutely nothing? Sure seems that way! I am hostile towards your position because it leads to deterministic thinking that simply does not reflect the reality of the human condition. There are myriad cultural practices that have absolutely nothing to do with being naturally selected for. It’s exactly your kind of thinking that naturalizes heterosexuality and leads to discriminatory actions against LGBT people.

      Further, if your premise were correct and humans were “nothing more” than bundles of neural biology responding to the environment, then why are there such widely varying cultural practices within the same environments? If we are nothing but our biology, then it would stand to reason that our biology would always respond to the same environment in the same ways and that therefore our social practices would be the same in the same environments. But that’s not the case at all.

      I never said the article or the researchers were homophobic or bigoted. I said their hypothesis is based on a heteronormative reductionist understanding of sexual orientation. That makes it a heterosexist (i.e., “heteronormativity in action”) article. What you don’t seem to grasp is that they are utilizing cultural beliefs here, not objective scientific facts. So, in reality, their reductionist theories are “woo-woo” explanations. This is why I reject your reductionist/”woo-woo” dichotomy–because reductionist explanations are often woo-woo explanations cloaked in the authority of science.

      1. So how did culture evolve, if not through a method of selection, much like “memes”? Are you sure you’re not rejecting a hypothesis based solely on how it makes you feel?

        1. No one knows how culture evolved–there is no working theory of cultural evolution. And if you think memetics is the answer, you’re sorely mistaken. See this discussion.

          The assumption that we are all “nothing but biology responding to environment” overlooks the ways that our culture changes the environment, thus changing our engagement with and responses to the environment. This is why I say that I eschew the biological reductionist/environmental determinist position. There is a deeply interconnected interplay between culture and biology–it is not a one-way relationship.

          Also, I do not appreciate your implication that I am too biased to understand how science works. I am rejecting the hypothesis because it is loaded with unexamined cultural beliefs. I am not rejecting the idea that epigenetics can tell us something about how certain people have higher or lower levels of androgen exposure in utero. I am rejecting the hypothesis that feminization of males or masculinization of females is the cause of homosexuality, either defined as an identity category or as desire.

      2. Will,

        Ultimately culture had to have arisen from minds which are the products of brains. Culture does not arise from a woo-woo vacuum. And this does not in any way reject the complexities of culture or any environment. Indeed with understanding of Chaos Theory and Complex Systems, culture is far from being clockwork or deterministic. When you are growing a plate of E Coli it will be wholly unpredictable which generation on the successive petri dishes will “magically” eat up fructose instead of glucose. Genes and environment yielded this. Now imagine if you amplify that complexity to the level of humans, there is no way you can determine future outcomes. That in no way refutes or contradicts the ontologic reductionist explanations.
        Indeed that is why we need different specialists working at different levels all the way from neurobiologists working on squid axons all the way to the level of sociologists.

        1. ragdish,

          Why does culture “had to have” arisen from minds? Why could it not have arisen from embodied practices between individuals and social structures that were then assigned meaning? Your comment appears to be a just-so story. You’re making assertions about the origin of culture without any data.

          Specialists, such as sociologists and cultural anthropologists, reject biological reductionism. Does that mean they are “woo-woo”? If so, why are you advocating the need for their work since you reject any view of humanity that does not reduce it to biology? And why do you keep saying “woo-woo”? Is it a shut-up word meant to dismiss any counterpoint raised against reductionism? It’s annoying and contributes nothing to the discussion.

          E. coli does not have culture. It is limited in the ways that it can respond to its environment. Human beings are not limited in that way because we have culture and can therefore shape our environment to be something radically different. And we can do that for reasons other than selective pressure–in other words, we do not just modify our environments because it’s selectively beneficial. For example, sometimes we modify our environments simply to make them more aesthetically pleasing.

          If you’re going to argue that we are “nothing but the complex arrangement of molecules that via natural seletion led to the development of complex neuronal assemblies that communicate via synaptic connections”, you should follow through with that and admit that culture is irrelevant. Because when you say “nothing but” I take that seriously. We are only a complex arrangement of molecules and neural networks brought about solely by natural selection–nothing more. That is your claim, is it not? My argument is that it’s not so simple, and that culture plays a much larger role in our behavior than you’re giving it credit.

          Anyway, I’m not going to carry on with this line of argument because I find it anti-intellectual and, frankly, I don’t need to be lectured on how biological reductionism is a great thing considering the very real damage it’s caused many social minorities, including queer people.

          1. Before you leave this sub-thread, I want to solidify my point.

            A. We are nothing but the complex arrangement of molecules that via natural seletion led to the development of complex neuronal assemblies that communicate via synaptic connections

            B. Embodied practices between individuals and social structures that were then assigned meaning

            C. Culture

            A gives rise to B which then gives rise to C. C can alter A via synaptic plasticity. How else could this happen? This does not alter the fact that we are walking neural networks. And there is nothing in what I’ve said that deflates the importance of culture. And indeed, there is nothing in what I’ve stated that would lead to any damage to social minorities. Science can be misused. Hitler twisted the germ theory of disease to justify his racist views. None of that refutes the reductionist truths of microbiology.

          2. Now you’re just being willfully dense.

            “Nothing but” means that we have no culture. Your definition of what makes us human does not allow for culture. It only allows for biological processes. Culture is not a biological process.

            This does not alter the fact that we are walking neural networks.

            I never said we aren’t. I said we are more than just that. Your argument is that we are nothing more. We are also our social relations and collective social identities and all the products thereof that do not reside in the mind. We are more than JUST molecules and JUST neural networks and JUST a sack of genes responding to the environment. There is more to being human than that.

            This is the reductionism I speak against. According to your logic, there is no difference between humans and dogs, because both humans and dogs “are nothing but the complex arrangements of molecules that via natural selection led to the development of complex neuronal assemblies that communicate via synaptic connections”, though perhaps you would distinguish us because we are bipedal and dogs aren’t. But why is that a meaningful distinction in your reductionist worldview, if we are “nothing but”?

            there is nothing in what I’ve stated that would lead to any damage to social minorities.

            Tell that to all the trans* people who have to deal with biological reductionism in very real ways on a constant basis. Or the sissy boys who have electrodes attached to their scrotums to have the sissy shocked out of them. Or the people of color and people with disabilities who have been subjected to eugenics. These things have occurred because of naturalistic, reductionistic assertions produced through scientific inquiry. So, yes, there is something in what you’ve stated that could lead to damaging social minorities.

            Science, to borrow your own absurd wording, does not happen in a “woo-woo vacuum.” It is a social practice that is influenced by cultural bias and that has real impacts on people’s lives. To pretend otherwise is to be detached from reality.

            None of that refutes the reductionist truths of microbiology.

            Oh, so now they’re elevated to the level of truth, huh? We’re no longer discussing hypotheses or theories or facts (which are socially constructed, yes including facts), but TRUTH. Given to us from ragdish on Skepchick comments! Just short of being etched into stone tablets!

            And here I thought science was the search for the best explanations of natural phenomena, not universal truth about everything. Silly me!

            Yeah, I’m done with you.

          3. And give it to us from our delightful postmodernist Will who would gladly leap out of a 747 at 30000 feet proudly claiming that gravity is a socially constructed truth!! Bravo!!

          4. Ah, yes. The “you don’t agree with my reductionist version of science therefore postmodernist” trope. I was wondering when you would resort to that.

            You sure are fond of shut-up words!

            Don’t bother commenting on this thread anymore. You are not welcome here.

    2. Humans are carbon based bipedal neural network information processors that are the products of natural selection. And the function of those neural networks are determined by the interaction of genes and environment gearing the organism to survive.

      That description of how brains work is so overly simplistic that it literally predicts everything – and therefore nothing.

      You might as well say a painting is nothing more than carbon-based fibrous canvasses decorated with pigments mixed with oils and applied with a brush. It offers no insight into why some paintings are impressionist and some paintings are romantic.

  4. I think they mean “masculinization/feminization” in a more technical way than you took it to be (referring specifically to sexual preference of gender and no more.) I agree that the terminology is heterosexist and confusing. I also wonder if their model explains bisexuality, or do they propose that operates by a different mechanism?

    1. Whether they are referring to masculine/feminne social roles or “masculinization/feminization” of fetuses due to hormones (which is what I thought they were referring to in the first place), I disagree with them either way.

      Gay cis men are not any less biologically masculinized than straight cis men. And, as I noted in my first comment to Jack99 up above, there is evidence that gay men have more testosterone circulating through their systems than straight men, which runs counter to their hypothesis that straight men are more masculinized by androgens than gay men.

      Further, it is a failure of explaining their research in public forums. They are falling into the trap of using words with scientific and colloquial meanings (e.g., “theory”) without explaining exactly what they mean. They may explain it better in the study itself (I don’t recall, I only skimmed it), but in the reporting and in their discussion of it as quoted in the article I linked to, they fail miserably on multiple fronts.

      That’s a good question about bisexuality. They subsume bisexuality under “homosexuality,” and even state that transsexuality may be subsumed under “homosexual” as well. Quote from the study (p. 345):

      By homosexuality we mean any same-sex partner preference, spanning all Kinsey scores ????0 (e.g., including bisexual- ity). Our model of homosexuality may also apply to transsexualism, but we do not de- velop this application here.

      This is straight out of the late 1800s sexological concept of gender and sexuality, which has been discounted for decades. It’s hetero/homo binary in the extreme, down to allowing for transsexuality as a radical form of homosexuality. Their understandings of gender and sexuality are completely uninformed by the literature on the topic.

  5. There was a study done with deer a while back, which showed that, yeah, there is genetic deviations, which effect male/female characteristics. They proposed that what they where seeing was a sort of trade off. Over-aggression, and other characteristics, in a female sometimes caused the females to react violently to male attempts to bread at all. Males, with a lower instinct to mate, or the wrong one, for that matter, didn’t reproduce as often, or at all. One can presume that the same behaviors may have other consequences (over aggression might cause them to face a predator, instead of running, for example). Basically, there is generational drift, towards and away from, more maleness/femaleness, due to competing requirements, and the fact that, at least for deer, those traits are not clearly separated. There is no, “Male will always be male”, but its a spectrum, and you can have that spectrum end up with wide variances.

    Also, often, such variances *are* effected by environmental stresses, to the mother, usually, but also, possibly, do to the age of a father, or other factors. Those things could trigger developmental shifts. Basically, the bloody stupidity of these people is not where they are looking, but in the assumption that the whole answer is in one place.

    What I think causes it is:

    1. Genetic drift, where there are a few clear “small scale” changes, which can create a higher odds of behavioral changes.

    2. Developmental factors, which may change hormone levels, in ways that trigger/enhance the effects of #1.

    3. Environmental effects, which *also* could either effect the hormone levels, or trigger drift, or otherwise shift how the genes regulate development.

    4. Actual environmental factors, after birth, which effect mental development. This is a harder one, but it can also have continued developmental impacts, in a growing brain. There just isn’t much clear evidence to suggest what the causes would be, though.. of course there are lots of idiots with insane “theories” on the religious right. But, while plasticity can explain some of it, the fact remains, that most of it seems to be, if not set in stone, then at least biased heavily one way, or the other, early on.

    But, there isn’t just one gene, there isn’t some magic formula of “epimakers”, or what ever, which would have an impact. Its bloody complex, and probably about as easy to understand, never mind, for morons who think it should be, “curable”, as it is to fully understand cancers. The number of genes, both standard, and developmental, that could, all, contribute, along with changes in expression, from other factors, is likely to have so many variables that, at best, the most the people that think it should be cured might manage is to make everyone bisexual (since, at least then, you wouldn’t be dealing with the, likely, equal extremes from, “super-heteros”, assuming the deer studies extend into human behavior as well).

    1. Basically, the bloody stupidity of these people is not where they are looking, but in the assumption that the whole answer is in one place.

      I agree. Also the assumption that there is only one cause of homosexuality (as defined by preference by the researchers). Can it not be a combination of all sorts of factors, including biology, environment, and culture? It seems to me that it’s probably a combination of a whole host of factors, some of which we probably aren’t even aware of.

  6. Will, I ran across this link a few weeks ago in my attempts to educate myself and I thought it may help ragdish understand where you are coming from

    To me it seems quite a good review and I would like to know what you think of the “homosexual heterosexual” concept – but please delete if you think inappropriate.

    1. Interesting and thorough literature review. Admittedly, I did not read it all, I skimmed through it. It’s quite long and I have a lot of grading to finish up.

      I’m quite uncomfortable with the notion that 1/5 people are “homosexual heterosexuals.” The hetero/homo binary throughout the piece is unfortunate. It also seems to move between homosexual as identity, preference, desire, and behavior throughout the article without much thought as to which is being discussed.

    2. Oops, I missed the last few exchanges while driving to work and taking care of business before posting that link. My timing sucks!

  7. In this thread there are a lot of people who should learn what is observer bias, and why it kills most science on non-white, non-straight, non-male people.

    At best, if true, this research shows a possible (ie statistically
    plausible) model for intersexual/intergender expressions influenced by
    epigenetic markers. It says nothing about gender preferences in
    sexuality – there has been not a single empirical or statistical study
    that established beyond a doubt that sexual preference is linked to
    genetic/epigenetic formation and sex hormone levels. And the existence
    of very masculine and very gay transmen or of very femenine and very
    lesbian transwomen suggests that might never be the case.

    Thus, not only there is no empirical evidence, but this can only be
    linked to sexual preference via an unproven (and unlikely) assumption.

    This is typical, unfortunately of research on these questions – until
    research is not blank-slate, empirical research, in which the actual
    sexuality of actual subjects is examined and their actual genetic
    makeup and epigenetic history is studied, and then correlations can be
    made, and cultural conditions controlled for, we will have no choice
    but to consider all of this pseudo-science, no matter how the math is
    rigorous. As long as the assumptions are those of hetereonormativity.

    The problem with the pseudo-skeptics posting here is that they are only being skeptical of the opposition, not of the claim: epi-marks are a new enough field of study that we should take it with a grain of salt, and, well, be skeptical about sensationalized claims made with it.

    I repeat, since the majority of gay men have testosterone levels at similar levels as non-gay men, epi-marks might have an effect on them. But have no effect on future sexuality. That single point demolishes the point conclusively – without making a value judgement on the validity of epi-marks or statistical approaches.

  8. I admit I am not fully up on epi-genetics and what it all is, and have been stirred by this discussion and the article to take some time to read up on it. But I don’t imagine that I am alone in that predicament.

    So while this is an interesting conversation to be sure, what I find most frustrating about the article is how its published in a kind of marketing-speak environment. The title of this article seems to be solely about stoking a little fire of opinion rather than delving into what all this means for anyone reading. No explanation of epi-genetics or what these mathematical models might entail.

    I suppose that the comments and blogs like this exist so folks can explore the ideas in more detail, but it just reads so poorly, so empty of meaning, that I can’t really understand what the point of publishing it is.

    It bothers me deeply that while there are important conversations to be had in this about culture, biological reductionism, and not to mention how people understand other human beings – I worry that it is all trumped by a kind of vacuous intellectual vanity more for the sake of blathering than anything else.

    1. I’m not a geneticist or a biologist. I don’t know enough about epigenetics to write a blog post explaining it. There’s plenty of information out there explaining epigenetics if you’re interested (I do recommend this video as a good starting place).

      My goal with this is not to educate people about epigenetics or to talk about how this research may or may not have useful components. This article is not “stoking a little fire of opinion.” It is actually quite typical of critical approaches to social issues. I’m poking holes in the unexamined biases and assumptions that underlie their mathematical models that are presented as scientific discovery because their research as presented has the potential to contribute to the further oppression of queer people.

      1. Thanks Will, I will definitely check out that video, I did spend some time reading up about epi-genes this afternoon.

        And to be clear, the article I was referring to was the original article you linked to at US News, not your article here at Skepchick. I found your writing far more interesting than the initial article, because it actually looked at what the article was saying.

        What I was objecting to was the flippant way that US News article was presented – in a style that provoked without adding serious content.

        So, I’m all for the hole-poking. The frustration I was having was with that US News article and the way I felt ragdish was sort of ignoring the reality that content like this (USNews) can have real and actual effects on people’s lives.

        This is because I see that initial article as, while having little in the way of scientific legs to stand on, having a direct effect on how we see and interact with our fellow human beings – a thought which you perhaps more eloquently described as “…the potential to contribute to the further oppression of queer people.”

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